The one thing everyone knows about The Nightingale is its depiction of sexual violence. I understand that for some people this can be triggering and, if that’s the case, fine, don’t watch this movie. But this is a depiction portrayed from the female character’s perspective, by a female director, to shine a light on the treatment of real women whose stories have been buried in history. That’s the best reason I can think of to expose such events on screen.
The violence generally in this film is pretty constant, but to be honest, I didn’t find it as shocking as some have purported. To be shocked by this film, you’d have to know nothing about the history of Australia or the conduct of the British Empire abroad generally.
Around 200 indigenous languages were lost during the colonisation of Australia. Do you know how many people you have to kill to wipe out 200 languages?
The main character Clare starts the film with a husband and child, and spends the bulk of the film seeking revenge against the British soldiers who come to her house one night. She is accompanied in this by an Aboriginal tracker Billy. Over the course of the film, they go from a place of mutual distrust to a shared sense of common grief.
This is a raw, bare nerve of a film, in which the horror is at how everyday extraordinary cruelty is. The director is the lassie who did the Babadook, and this is another film about the screaming howl of unstoppable grief, expertly told with abundant humanity. And the performances are amazing. Every one award-worthy.
Aisling Franciosi gives a gut-wrenching performance as Clare. Baykali Ganambarr just conveys a wealth of unspeakable injustice as Billy. Even the baddies are amazing in their turn. Sam Claflin is basically in the running for all time greatest bastard in Australian cinema history. And Damon Herriman, a massively underrated dramatic actor, also brings a brilliant depiction of the worst of humanity.
Yet I think what I like most about the film is the unwillingness to simply be the straight revenge tale it should. Instead it struggles with the inability for revenge to heal, for anything to heal what cannot heal, and where to go to from there, for there to be any after. I like it for not letting itself off the hook with that. It makes the last quarter of the film more muted than some might want, given that we’re used to seeing vengeance narratives all ending in resolved catharsis. But this is a movie about the characters, and its important that the conclusion of the film is on them, not the perpetrators.
A good film, if you are willing to come to it knowing you won’t be spared from the parts of history we don’t speak about.